Bursting with color and rich in meaning, Minnesota Opera’s ‘Carmen’ is an affair to remember
There’s an old adage in sports that great players don’t necessarily make great coaches. Leading a team is a gift in itself.
But after seeing Minnesota Opera’s “Carmen,” I can assure you star soprano Denyce Graves has that gift.
When Graves was cast to direct Georges Bizet’s opera — three decades after singing the title role in a Minnesota operatic staging that propelled her to stardom — it might have seemed like a stunt. After all, she had never done a professional production. There would surely be some rookie mistakes.
If there were, I didn’t catch them. It is the most creative, colorful and meticulously crafted “Carmen” of the many I have known. Bursting with imagination, it is packed with extremely strong vocals, deeply involving performances, incredible dance interludes and an orchestra led by Elias Grandy bringing freshness to familiar tunes.
So how did a woman who sang Carmen in most of the world’s great operas manage to make the jump to directing? Well, she probably picked up some of the best directing ideas from those many performances, but each member of a cast of 70 seemed to have created a complex character. The acting was deeply engaged, and not just among the top 10 singing roles. Everyone behaved as if they had a story to tell.
As for the story of Carmen and the soldier she seduces, Don Jose, it comes with layers of meaning missing from most productions. As portrayed by Maya Lahyani and Won Whi Choi, they are palpable enthusiasts on a collision course between worldliness and naivety, rebellion and convention. Each air and duet was sung with power, clarity and subtlety.
(On May 14 and 22, the roles of Carmen and Don José will be performed by Zoie Reams and Rafael Moras.)
Highlighting the urban versus rural clash that pits an innocent Don Jose against Carmen’s team of resourceful smugglers, Symone HarcumMicaela’s may represent unspoiled purity, but she does it with warmth, accessibility and a sweet soprano voice that makes her laments truly touching. His humility is contrasted with the larger-than-life bravado of the matador Escamillo, sung with magnetic confidence by Aaron Keney. With the help of an adoring crowd, the “Toreador” aria becomes the entertaining spectacle it deserves to be.
But this scene is just one of many wonderfully choreographed sequences benefiting from the dance vision of Eric Sean Fogel. Few of the instrumental interludes in this production aren’t accompanied by visually splendid movement that drives the story forward, sometimes as a piece of Riccardo Hernandez’s impressive ensemble falls into place. And having flamenco guitarist Daniel Volovets helping out the sequences by improvising on some of the opera’s themes is a wonderful touch.
A key element of this staging is the distinct identity of the Roma people to which Carmen belongs. It clearly enriches the vivid characterizations. The chorus is excellent throughout, and I suspect Graves helped each member feel like they had something important to contribute. Just like a good trainer should.
Who: Music by Georges Bizet, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Directed by Elias Grandy, directed by Denyce Graves.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sun., 7:30 p.m. May 19 and 21, 2 p.m. May 22.
Or: Ordway Music Theatre, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $25-$258, 612-333-6669 or www.mnopera.org.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music writer from Twin Cities. email@example.com